Mark Schrad is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Villanova University. He’s the author of Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State, which was just released in paperback.
Beastie Boys, “Brass Monkey,” Licensed to Ill, 1986.
As the media world is fixated on Putin’s allegedly stashed $2 billion, the not-named-Putin Russians in the leaked documents comprise of siloviki, chinovniki, parliamentarians, governors and their families. They include:
You can find a rundown of all their offshore and shell company connections and more in Novaya gazeta’s Panama Papers investigation “Offshore. Uncovered.”
And no one in Russia is under any illusion that these revelations will gain any political, let alone legal traction. No Russian law enforcement body has said a single word about intending to look into these documents. It’s just business as usual. Those in the Western press having their “Gotcha!” moment might as well be saying it in the mirror. Even the Vedomosti editorial board is blasé about the big revelations:
In Russia, offshore companies are first and foremost as a means of protection and for the concealment of property. In the West they are to avoid paying taxes, while we hide ownership. First, it’s more convenient to do business through offshore companies. Second, many of our businesses are linked in some way to the state—either through money or participants—in ways that aren’t always legal.
Our “state official-owners” can’t imagine the existence of something both beneficial for the state and detrimental to the authorities. It’s impossible for them to say that we ourselves will now take taxes from ourselves and we ourselves will punish ourselves. Therefore, we have to say that there is nothing new in these documents, and that it is a hit against the president. In a way, this is the honest truth.
Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University. He writes widely on Russian political economy and politics and is author of two books The Politics of Economic Stagnation in the Soviet Union and The Myth of the Plan: Lessons of Soviet Planning Experience. His most recent article is “Petronation? Oil, Gas and National Identity in Russia,” published in the journal Post-Soviet Affairs.
Killing Joke, “Money is Not Our God,” Extremities, Dirt, and Various Repressed Emotions, 1990.
Carl Schreck, journalist who has been reporting on Russia for fifteen years. He’s worked for the Moscow Times, RIA Novosti, and currently for RFE/RL. His most recent article is “Poison Puzzle: A Search For Answers In Kremlin Critic’s Mysterious Illness.”
Music: David Bowie, “Moonage Daydream,” The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972
One of the outcomes of the Maidan Revolution, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the ensuing war in the Donbas has been a marked explosion in Russian propaganda. So much so that dissecting it has become a genre in and of itself. Indeed, over the last two years an entire discursive universe has emerged to analyze, adjudicate, and combat Russia’s “weaponization of information.”
Alexey Kovalev’s “Hello, is this Noodle Remover?” is a recent example of this effort sniff out the stink in the Russian media’s bullshit. And what large steaming piles of bullshit he’s found.
Below is a translation of one of his posts (I originally saw it on Maximonline.ru. My translation is of that text) that caught my eye. Links between the Kremlin and American and European rightwing groups has been well documented. So that fact that neo-Nazis, LaRouchies, and other fringe rightwing characters find their way on Russian television is that surprising. Perhaps what is novel about Kovalev’s post is that the circle he uncovers all seem to be one degree or so from the Kremlin.
This is not to say that Russian television has the monopoly on the tin foil hat brigade rolodex. Anyone with enough patience to look askew at Fox News will notice Birthers, 9/11-Truthers, and other conspiracy mongers gracing their screens. Nevertheless, what attracted me to this particular post are the wacky neighbors Russian state media has cozied up with (I have somewhat of a strange fascination with cultists of the Right and the Left) and how this confirms my belief that Russian propaganda is so propagandistic—turned all the way up to 11—that it’s essentially a (unwitting) parody of itself. It’s all very meta.
Hello, is this Noodle Remover?
These experts appear on domestic Russian channels like the Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK) and for the foreign market like RT and Sputnik. They are used for legitimizing propaganda talking points abroad: You see, we didn’t come up with all this about America being treacherous. Even American experts say so.
There’s quite a small set of people who migrate from story to story where they are introduced as “experts,” then “analysts,” and then as “journalists and writers.” Even though they aren’t considered experts in their own country. In Russia, this could be the speaker of parliament, the heads of large state-owned corporations, or someone who serves in some other high governmental post and as such spin the most elaborate conspiratorial nonsense for the public. And it will be printed in the state media, and no one will raise an eyebrow.
But in the West, unlike in Russia, the idea of a reputation still carries some weight. And even if people hold some very fringe views or flirt with conspiracy theories, they try to keep it to themselves if they want to serve in high office. Those who can’t manage to keep their love for tin foil hats quiet are left with only a small number of websites for their small circle of adherents or channels like RT where their fantasies are broadcast live to a considerably larger, though on a global scale still marginal, audience. So first they make it on RT, and then from there they land on Vesti as “experts” who on closer examination turn out to be village idiots, swindlers, and outright Nazis.
Where do they get all these people? Does some unknown VGTRK editor sit there and come up with some reputable foreign expert to put on air to talk about American plots?
Let’s try to sort this out with a Vesti story on “armchair experts” as an example.
Take, for example, William Engdahl [3:40 in the Vesti report] who says that “the US government has concocted a entire plot to demonize Russia.” Engdahl is the author of numerous books, articles and speeches about the dangers of GMOs, that global warming is a myth, and that the CIA is behind every incident in the world, from the 1979 overthrow of the Shah of Iran to the Egyptian Revolution in 2011. He often appears on RT, and in particular on the program Truthseeker in July 2014, the same episode about “crucified children” that was eventually taken off the air after numerous viewer complaints.
In addition, Engdahl is a regular contributor to the Centre for Research on Globalization and frequently publishes on the website globalresearch.ca. Noodle Remover has already written about why this site is a valuable source for various “analysts” and “political scientists” for Russian television. And Michel Chossudovsky, the Centre for Research on Globalization’s founder, is on the scientific council of the Italian magazine Geopolitica, whose editor, Tiberio Graziani, in turn, sits in the high council of the International Eurasian Movement, whose leader is Aleksandr Dugin. If you don’t already know who this is, then read on, so I don’t have to tell you. In general, in just a few years this multifaceted personality has morphed from a “nutty professor” into one of the most influential Russian public intellectuals with a huge impact on domestic and foreign policy. There’s perhaps nothing that demonstrates Dugin’s attitude toward Russia’s leadership than this quote from 2007. His views haven’t changed much since:
There is an Italian magazine for far right intellectuals that supports Putin on the principle “the enemy of my enemy” (the main criteria is to be against America), and there on the scientific council is Engdahl on the next line after Dugin. We can assume that Engdahl is personally acquainted with Dugin and through him he enters the minds and offices of the highest managers, including the heads of VGTRK, and not put on air on the personal initiative of some junior editor.
It seems that generally European right-wingers, neo-Nazis, Eurosceptics and various conspiracy theorists in Dugin’s orbit are the main source of “experts” for Russian television. And not just for television. Take for example, Manuel Ochsenreiter, who appears regularly on RT and Russian television channels as a “journalist.”
Of course, the journalist Ochsenreiter is more specifically the editor of the far right journal Zuerst!, which has been involved in several scandals in Germany (for example, the publisher Bauer dropped the magazine due to its sympathy for Nazism). Moreover, Ochsenreiter isn’t just a frequent commentator on Russian television; he was an “observer” to the “elections” in the Luhansk People’s Republic, which is defending itself against the aggression of the fascist junta. All with the help of a real German neo-Nazi, who publishes a German magazine about the glorious victories of the Wehrmacht.
This is literally the cover of the magazine Deutsche Militärzeitschrift, which Ochsenreiter edited until 2011.
Continuing with the Vesti story. Jeffrey Steinberg comes on next after Engdahl [at 3:51]. Steinberg is an author for Executive Intelligence Review which is published by the so-called LaRouche Movement. This “movement,” to put it kindly, is actually just a bunch of LaRouchies—a quasi-fascist cult with fairly seedy rituals (read about “ego-stripping“, for example). Their views are also purely cultish and conspiratorial. LaRouchies, for example, are completely nuts about the British royal family, which, in their view, are to blame for all of mankind’s troubles, Queen Elizabeth II personally controls the drug cartels, and so on. Jeffrey Steinberg, for example, claimed in an interview that Princess Diana didn’t die in a car accident but was killed by British intelligence on the orders of Prince Philip (Conspiracy theories that Diana was murdered and didn’t die in an accident are popular). EIR magazine regularly publishes covers like this:
As you probably guessed, American magazines with such covers and viewpoints, while they aren’t illegal to publish (try to imagine something like this in Russia), don’t enjoy a massive following, to put it mildly.
Are they active in Russia? First, there’s a LaRouche office in Russia—the so-called Schiller Institute. And the Executive Intelligence Review has a Russian website with all the same stuff as the original only it looks even more insane in Russian:
British agents and advocates for genocide organized the American imperial coup in Ukraine. My God. However, they just didn’t show up yesterday. Lyndon LaRouche himself has been regularly interviewed on RT since 2008.
But he also didn’t appear out of thin air. The thing is, Lyndon LaRouche isn’t the personal and longtime friend of just anyone, but of Sergei Glazyev, the adviser to the President on regional economic integration. Here’s LaRouche and Glazyev together at a joint press conference in 2001:
And here’s a personal congratulation from Glazyev to Lyndon LaRouche on EIR‘s Russian site:
As you can see, these “experts” and “analysts” on the Russian television aren’t picked out of thin air or by the whim of broadcast news editor, but from the friends of those in the highest levels of the Russian government. Dugin, Glazyev, and the Rodina Party have close ties with the European and American far-right, neo-Nazis and other yahoos, who are dragged on television as influential Western political scientists and journalists when they really aren’t. And they are so very pleased when they’re let on television. Even if they’re introduced as important people in Russia and not back home. The Rodina Party, which Glazyev belongs, is also a major supplier of a variety of hand-fed “experts” for television. For example, Vesti has constantly quoted John Laughland at least since 2002:
Now Laughland is cited as the “Director of Studies at the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation.” The respectably named Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, or the Institut de la Démocratie et de la Coopération is headquartered in Paris. Only Laughland is not really he director of this institute nor is any Monsieur for that matter. It’s Natalia Narochnitskaya, a former Duma deputy from the Rodina party from 2003 to 2007. Putin personally appointed her as director.
Narochnitskaya has also been good friends with Laughland for ages.
The Institute for Democracy and Cooperation is an NGO officially established and financed from Russia. So, if you see such experts on television, don’t be fooled by the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation and Mr. Laughland criticizing NATO, America and democracy. It’s all for the homeland. In such cases don’t let your noodles hang on your ears and stay by the phone.
PS: Noodle Remover thanks Anton Shekhovtsov, whose profound research has provided a lot of useful leads on the links between the Russian political establishment and the European and American far-right.
The latest round of US sanctions imposed on Putin’s associates assumes that if you squeeze the oligarchs orbiting Putin, then they will in turn compel him to change his policy toward Ukraine. The idea an oligarchy rules Russia, where the tsar acts as an arbiter over elite conflicts is a staple of Kremlinology. It was Edward Keenan who most systematically put forward this argument in his seminal article “Muscovite Political Folkways.” Then Keenan wrote, “the Muscovite, and later Russian, systems tended to prefer oligarchic and collegial rule, to avoid the single leader, and to function best when the nominal autocratic was in fact politically weak.” Indeed, Keenan’s schematic of this oligarchic rule resembled an atom where the tsar sat and the center and oligarch neutrons and electrons orbited him. Keenan’s argument was significant because it suggested that the idea that Russia was a pure autocracy was a myth. The all-powerful tsar was a fiction perpetuated by the oligarchy to conceal the real and often conspiratorial nature of power in Russia.
Keenan’s argument was and remains compelling. It has also endured. In December, Andrew Weiss wrote of Putinism in the New York Times:
Yet Russia’s oligarchy (that is, the control of the state and economy by a small group of well-placed, extremely wealthy insiders) is alive and well. The supposedly all-powerful Mr. Putin actually devotes much of his time to refereeing bitter disputes between oligarchs like Igor I. Sechin, the head of the state oil company Rosneft, and Gennady N. Timchenko, a co-owner of Russia’s largest oil trading company and an independent natural gas producer. These latter-day oligarchs, many of whom have built vast business empires on the back of longstanding connections to Mr. Putin, are part of a political tradition that dates back to the rapid expansion of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy in the 1400s.
Given events over the last few weeks, does this analysis of Putin still hold? With Crimea are we not witnessing Putin’s transformation into a truly autocratic ruler who is no longer restrained by the oligarchs orbiting him? If this is the case, then the underlining premise of the US sanctions is a miscalculation.
Indeed, press accounts say that Putin’s decision to take Crimea was ad hoc and made with the counsel of a shrinking group of advisors from the security apparatus. As Shawn Walker recently reported in the Guardian:
Despite the staunch support for the move in Russia’s parliament, it is clear the decision to seize Crimea was taken by a very small circle of people. Russian newspapers reported that all their government sources had been taken completely by surprise by the move.
The president now takes counsel from an ever-shrinking coterie of trusted aides. Most of them have a KGB background like the president and see nefarious western plots everywhere.
They are also less likely to hold any assets abroad. Consider this with Putin’s calls over the last year for Russia’s elites to renationalize their assets so they wouldn’t be vulnerable to the west. Indeed, some in the Russian press argue that the US sanctions will strengthen Putin’s grip over the elite rather than loosen it. Now he has the patriotism card at his disposal along with “I told you so” to any elite who feels the financial pinch from sanctions. The sanctions could also be inducing a patriotic fervor causing Russian elites to pull their money out of the west. The last time something like this happened was at the outbreak of WWI in 1914. In fact, in a television interview, Yuri Kovalchuk, Putin’s so-called banker and US sanctions victim, warned other oligarchs that “people intuitively understand which side of the barricade a business is on.” He added:
“You can have an apartment abroad or a villa on the (French) Riviera. Fine. The question is, where is your home? And one’s home is not just money. Where is your family, where do your children go to school, where do they work? . . . And what sports team do you sponsor? Businesses are different – one might sponsor, say, a serious soccer team in the premier league, another a sandlot (unorganized) team. That’s not important – the question is, where is the team – here or outside your country?”
While there have been rumors of elite grumbling and dismay at Putin’s actions, none have said a thing publicly. Why? Because Putin holds all the cards. With Crimea he has the power and a patriotic public behind him. He is no longer beholden to oligarch whispers. And perhaps thanks to US sanctions he can further subordinate the “fifth column” in the elite and become a true autocrat.